Belarus is forcing Afghan migrants over the Polish border at gunpoint


Belarus has trucked Afghan migrants to the Polish border and forced them to cross at gunpoint as strongman dictator Alexander Lukashenko plays a ‘dirty game’ to destabilise the EU.

Record numbers of refugees have been pouring across the 420-mile EU frontier with Belarus, which includes Latvia and Lithuania, since Brussels imposed sanctions on Minsk in June. 

Belarus is accused of keeping the migrants in prison-like hotels before driving them to the border as part of a Kremlin-backed ‘hybrid war’ to weaken the 27-state bloc. 

Thirty-two Afghans have been stranded in no man’s land for two weeks near the Polish village of Usnarz Gorny. Translators said they were ferried to the border by Belarusian men in balaclavas in the middle of the night. 

‘They said they could not resist the guards, who always carried large guns,’ Anna Alboth, 37, from the charity Minority Rights Group, told The Times.   

Thirty-two Afghan migrants have been stranded in no man’s land for two weeks near the Polish village of Usnarz Gorny (pictured: Polish troops watch over a group of migrants camped in the area on Wednesday)

Polish soldiers guard a group of migrants on Sunday stranded on the border between Belarus and Poland near the village of Usnarz Gorny

Polish soldiers guard a group of migrants on Sunday stranded on the border between Belarus and Poland near the village of Usnarz Gorny

Record numbers of refugees have been pouring across the 420-mile EU frontier with Belarus, which includes Latvia and Lithuania, since Brussels imposed sanctions on Minsk in June.

Record numbers of refugees have been pouring across the 420-mile EU frontier with Belarus, which includes Latvia and Lithuania, since Brussels imposed sanctions on Minsk in June.

The migrants are believed to be continuing their journey to Western Europe after making it into Iran on a well-trodden smuggler trail. Others have been flying directly to Belarus from Iraq

The migrants are believed to be continuing their journey to Western Europe after making it into Iran on a well-trodden smuggler trail. Others have been flying directly to Belarus from Iraq

Thousands of Afghans are fleeing the country every day, smugglers have said, mostly on three routes all of which begin in Herat - a smuggling hub. The most direct, expensive, and dangerous route goes from there to Tehran via a crossing at Kohsan where migrants have to swim a deadly river, but stand the least chance of getting caught. A second route goes south to Zaranj before the crossing into Iran, to a safehouse in Kerman. From there, the migrants are taken to Tehran when the coast is clear of guards. The third and most-common route goes via Pakistan to Iran - it is the cheapest, but has the largest chance of capture

Thousands of Afghans are fleeing the country every day, smugglers have said, mostly on three routes all of which begin in Herat – a smuggling hub. The most direct, expensive, and dangerous route goes from there to Tehran via a crossing at Kohsan where migrants have to swim a deadly river, but stand the least chance of getting caught. A second route goes south to Zaranj before the crossing into Iran, to a safehouse in Kerman. From there, the migrants are taken to Tehran when the coast is clear of guards. The third and most-common route goes via Pakistan to Iran – it is the cheapest, but has the largest chance of capture

Many are fleeing the Taliban, having started their journey to Europe months before Kabul fell as the jihadists seized swathes of the country. 

Human rights foundation Ocalenia said it arrived where the migrants were stuck on Wednesday to bring them food, tents, sleeping bags and power banks. They were not given access at first but were successful on Thursday. 

‘These people are being bounced across the border like ping-pong balls,’ said Kalina Czwarnog, who is working on the ground with Ocalenia.

One group were forced to drink water from a stream and forage food from nearby bushes after not being given food for 24 hours, Ms Czwarnog told The Times. 

Foundation member Tahmina Rajabova reported speaking to the migrants and learning that they were all Afghans seeking refugee status in Poland. They included a 15-year-old girl and some people in poor health. 

A few days earlier, about a dozen people from Iraq – women and small children – were stranded with them, but Belarusian authorities allowed them back into Belarus, Rajabova said. 

Locals said migrants who managed to make it into the village had been knocking on people’s doors to plead for food and water. 

Villagers said the refugees had been given planks to help them cross the Swislocz river.

Illegal crossings into Poland, Lithuania and Latvia have soared since the EU imposed sanctions on Lukashenko in June in response to Lukashenko’s brutal repression of political opponents.

So far this year, more than 4,100 asylum-seekers, have crossed into Lithuania. That’s 50 times more than during all of 2020 and they’re being sheltered in temporary camps across the Baltic EU member.   

In a joint declaration the EU countries accused the tyrant of retaliating by flying in Middle Eastern migrants as part of a ‘hybrid war’ to ‘exert political pressure on the EU.’ 

Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland said: ‘Weaponizing refugees and immigrants threatens the regional security of the European Union and constitutes a grave breach of human rights.’ 

The four countries said they would take in any refugees crossing the border but would also call for ‘possible new restrictive measures by the EU to prevent any further illegal immigration.’ 

The migrant movements spiked dramatically after the EU slapped sanctions on Belarus officials. The measures were imposed after President Alexander Lukashenko (pictured) ordered a crackdown on opponents and protesters after claiming victory in a vote last year that the West denounced as rigged

The migrant movements spiked dramatically after the EU slapped sanctions on Belarus officials. The measures were imposed after President Alexander Lukashenko (pictured) ordered a crackdown on opponents and protesters after claiming victory in a vote last year that the West denounced as rigged

Armed members of the Polish Border Guards arrive at the border with Belarus as the country attempts to stem the flow of migrants being transported in

Armed members of the Polish Border Guards arrive at the border with Belarus as the country attempts to stem the flow of migrants being transported in

A migrant receives treatment from paramedics on Sunday near the Polish village of Usnarz Gorny

A migrant receives treatment from paramedics on Sunday near the Polish village of Usnarz Gorny

Lithuanian soldiers install razor wire at the Belarusian border on July 9

Lithuanian soldiers install razor wire at the Belarusian border on July 9 

There were 2,100 attempted crossings recorded in Poland this month alone, according to Warsaw.

Poland said last week it had deployed 1,000 troops to its border with Belarus to help border guards cope with a surge of people trying to enter. 

Polish defence chief Mariusz Blaszczak called the huge movements of people ‘a dirty game of Lukashenko and the Kremlin,’ as he shared images of a new 60-mile stretch of barbed wire fence being erected. He said another 30 miles of fence were on the way. 

Ewa Ostaszewska-Zuk, a lawyer at the Helsinki Human Rights Foundation in Warsaw, told The Times that she met many Afghans when she toured the border, including ‘policemen, public servants, IT specialists.’

They had paid up to £9,000 for the journey which saw them kept in hotel rooms with sealed windows before being trucked to the border and told, ‘Go, go.’

Adverts in Arabic for flights to Europe via Belarus have appeared online in recent months. 

EU member states are nervous about a replay of Europe’s 2015/16 migration crisis when the chaotic arrival of more than a million people from the Middle East stretched security and welfare systems and fuelled support for far-right groups. 

The Lithuanian border force released footage last week purporting to show Belarusian security forces pushing migrants over their border

The Lithuanian border force released footage last week purporting to show Belarusian security forces pushing migrants over their border

In the footage, a line of migrants could be seen being directed by a large group of police personnel

In the footage, a line of migrants could be seen being directed by a large group of police personnel

Many of the migrants were believed to have arrived in Belarus on commercial flights from Iraq. Those flights have stopped for now, perhaps in part due to the EU’s threat to impose visa restrictions on Iraqi citizens and officials.

Still, Lithuania’s border guard released video footage last week which it said reveals that migrants are being pushed across the border into EU territory by Belarus riot police. 

Another video showed several people cross into Lithuania and immediately return to Belarus to be filmed by Belarus officials.

After talks with Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte on Wednesday, EU Parliament President David Sassoli accused Lukashenko of ‘exploiting these poor people, men and women.’

‘I have seen these outrageous actions when officials push people across the border. It is both an issue of human rights, and also a question of protecting the border of the EU,’ Sassoli said. ‘It is an organised activity of the Lukashenko regime.’

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